Coaches, boxing experts, writers and everyone involved in the sport can dissect fighters and fight outcomes endlessly. Some match-ups are obvious, but those that aren’t, carry an element of surprise that can be attributed to a few overriding characteristics. These traits are not an accurate jab, a powerful hook or even an earth-shattering right cross. They’re not even always noticeable, until you see them in action. When a fighter is hurt, when he’s behind on the scorecards or is suddenly faced with something no one could have seen coming…that’s when the “magic” happens. That’s when everything else, fundamentals, technique and “the odds” no longer matter because they’ve all dramatically become overshadowed by the intangibles.
These intangible traits come from within and they are what separate real fighters from everyone else:
A true fighter is made up of so much more than a set of skills...he is made up of a set of wills. He has to have heart. This phrase gets thrown around a lot by writers, commentators and fans alike, but what does “having heart” mean? The fighter with heart possesses a belief in himself and a desire to win that surpasses anything that can be taught. He has an intense need to compete and an unwavering determination to overcome. He is a fighter not by choice, but by destiny and determination. It’s simply what he does. It’s where he feels most alive. Meeting in the middle of the ring is like coming home.
That undeniable ability to “dig deep,” when he needs it most, to turn it up a notch when his opponent starts to fade, or finding that one, glorious punch that turns a tragedy into pure drama, that untapped reserve - that’s the type of heart that real champions have.
There are fighters who “lack heart”, but without having it to some degree, they won’t go far and if by chance they make it to the top, you can bet their time there will be short-lived. Fighters with true heart capture the imagination of the public, earn the undying respect of the fans and leave a legacy in the ring.
A real champion is not only convinced that he is the best, he lives it, he trains like it and he exudes confidence in all he that does. It’s not arrogance or cockiness, but it is belief. Fighters who excel believe they have what it takes – that they are somehow destined for greatness. To that type of fighter, the question isn’t IF, but HOW…the outcome has been decided already. The results are a foregone conclusion before the fight even starts.
You can see the attitude of belief in their eyes. It’s in their presence and it does more damage to their opponent than the first punch. You could see it in Holyfield’s swagger, you could feel it in the energy and enthusiasm Trinidad had every time he walked to the ring. That supreme belief can be outwardly noticeable or exhibited in a quiet confidence, but it always shows in a fighter’s actions. It cannot be touched, but you can feel it when it’s there, like the calm before a storm.
Champions can change their fight plan, their style, even their natural tendencies to overcome obstacles. They are adaptable. They find a way to win, oftentimes in circumstances or against opponents they shouldn’t. A perfect example is in the 1980 match-up between Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns. Leonard should not have won that fight. Hearns was knocking everyone out. He was bigger, stronger and was on a fast rise through the welterweight division. This fight would define his career. Leonard withstood his power punches, adapted to his style and in spite of a left eye that was virtually swollen shut, he beat Hearns in the final seconds of the 14th round, in a fight in where he was behind on all scorecards. That intangible ability to “come through” was rooted in Ray’s ability to adapt. Even when Hearns changed his style mid-fight, from a puncher to a boxer, Leonard adjusted again. He changed his style and found a way to get to the bigger, stronger man. He adapted to the circumstances and altered his game plan to win. It may not have been a conscious decision, but he did what it took to overcome. Champions have that ability. They survive, they change, they adapt and they persevere. Against all odds and, in spite of the facts that are obvious to everyone around them, they turn the tables. Inexplicably they win.
When all is said and done, it’s difficult to pinpoint all of the special traits that set these types of championship athletes apart, but they’re easy to recognize when you see them unveiled. You never see them in fighters who fail to master the basics and who are not willing to put the time and effort into honing their craft in the gym. Those types of fighters simply don’t get far enough. But those who are willing, they get to explore their real boundaries and find out exactly what they’re made of. When fighters lay their hearts on the line, put their attitudes to the test and do what you think is humanly impossible, that’s what boxing legends are made of. Those are the intangible traits of a champion.